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22 Bay State men wrongfully jailed

By Franci Richardson and Maggie Mulvihill/ HERALD/FOX 25 PROBE

Wednesday, May 5, 2004

This is the first of a three-day joint report by the Boston Herald and Fox 25 probing the wrongful convictions of defendants in Massachusetts. It raises troubling questions about how and why 22 men were imprisoned for crimes they never committed. And it highlights the work of a top Boston homicide detective whose tactics have been slammed by defense lawyers as over the line.

Within the last two decades, at least 22 innocent Bay State men - most of them black and most investigated by Boston Police - have served serious prison time after being wrongfully convicted on rape and murder charges, according to a Boston Herald/Fox 25 investigation.

Since 1997 alone, nine innocent black men convicted in Suffolk County have been freed after serving anywhere from four to 30 years behind bars.

Throughout the country, 143 innocent suspects have been freed since 1990, but experts say the number of Suffolk County's wrongful convictions is second only to Chicago, which has sent the largest number of innocent men to jail.

``Unfortunately, Massachusetts in general has a big problem with wrongful convictions,'' said Aliza B. Kaplan, an Innocence Project attorney. ``Suffolk County is up there, unfortunately.''

The Herald/Fox 25 findings come as Gov. Mitt Romney [related, bio] has renewed his call for the death penalty, saying newly proposed guidelines will avoid wrongful convictions.

Nowhere in Massachusetts has the problem been more disturbing than in Boston, where 77 percent of the wrongly convicted murderers and rapists identified to date were arrested, tried and convicted.

Thirteen of those 17 Hub cases were investigated by Boston Police homicide and rape detectives and prosecuted by the Suffolk County District Attorney's office.

The BPD homicide unit has come under heavy criticism for conducting overly aggressive interrogations while focusing their investigations too narrowly.

``When police get a suspect, they ignore any suggestion that someone else did it,'' said Stephen Hrones, a defense attorney who represented wrongfully convicted Donnell Johnson. Johnson, now 26, served five years in prison for the 1994 murder of a 9-year-old boy.

Two new suspects were indicted for Jermaine Goffigan's death in 2001, but have not yet been tried.

A review of wrongful convictions found these disturbing facts:

A serious error by a Boston police fingerprint technician has triggered a criminal investigation by Attorney General Tom Reilly into how a thumbprint police said was Stephan Cowans' turned out to belong to a different man.

Cowans, who served 6 1/2 years in prison, was freed in January after being convicted for shooting Boston Police Sgt. Detective Gregory Gallagher in 1997.

His attorney, James Dilday, said: ``I truly believe that the Boston police set him up and I think it's because there was a policeman who was shot.''

``Stephan was a young black man with a criminal record and he was nobody. As far as they were concerned, one black man with a criminal record was interchangeable with another black man with a criminal record,'' Dilday added.

Ulysses Rodriguez Charles served 19 1/2 years in jail before being freed last year for the 1980 rapes of three Brighton women.

Charles, 50, has tried to pick up where he left off nearly two de cades ago - an innocent man with a hole in his life.

``I look at it like it was a death,'' said Charles, of Dorchester, sitting next to his wife, Rosalind. ``I was just existing. I was just breathing. My life had ceased. . .I don't talk about it now, though.''

Charles doesn't believe in the concept of justice.

``This goes on all the time,'' he said. ``It's happening now as we speak. It's just unfortunate it happened to me.''

New DNA tests have also helped to clear other men who insisted they were innocent, including:

Neil J. Miller spent 10 1/2 years in prison for raping a white Emerson College student in 1989. Because DNA was not yet admissible in Massachusetts courts, police never tested a semen stain on a sheet covering the bed where the rape occurred, a police official said. The lead detective on the case, now-Deputy Supt. Margot Hill, claimed the stain came from the victim's roommate's boyfriend. Recent DNA testing proved the stain came from the rapist.

And even though the victim said her attacker touched many items in her apartment, none of the fingerprints police lifted matched Miller's.

Miller, 37, also claims Hill improperly influenced the rape victim's identification and falsely told the victim Miller had raped a 90-year-old woman.

The unreliability of eyewitness identification has also factored heavily into the Suffolk County prosecutions.

``There are serious problems with eyewitness identification - more than I recognized,'' said a sometimes tearful Leslie O'Brien, now a defense attorney who, as a Suffolk County assistant district attorney in the 1990's, prosecuted four of the eight overturned cases.

One was Marlon Passley.

Passley, 31, was cleared in 1999 of a deadly 1995 shooting in which several eyewitnesses claimed he pulled the trigger. He spent four years in prison.

``These witnesses, I'm telling you, were extremely convincing,'' O'Brien said.

Families of those wrongly convicted blame Boston police, and some accuse them of deliberately trying to frame their relatives.

The mother of Donnell Johnson - who spent five years in jail for the 1994 Halloween murder of a 9-year-old - said she was stunned when she realized at her son's trial Sgt. Detective Daniel M. Keeler and his former partner, Sgt. Detective William Mahoney, had withheld the alibi statement she, her husband, and Johnson gave police the day after the murder.

``That was really hard to take in when you know the truth and you know that we were in that room for a good 40 to 45 minutes being questioned, with Donnell actually being questioned,'' Robin Johnson said.``If you're trying to build a case against somebody with not too much evidence, it was another piece of the puzzle they needed to destroy.''

Another innocent man who fell victim to faulty identification was Shawn Drumgold.

Drumgold served 15 years after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of 12-year-old Darlene Tiffany Moore in 1988. He said the ``stigma of child killer'' was a hard cross to bear in prison.

``I was scared to death. I was 23 years old,'' Drumgold said.

Drumgold, now 38, feels the uproar over the death of Moore - a young victim of gang gunfire - drove police to blame anyone fast.

``I think they were just interested in getting someone to quiet the community down,'' Drumgold said.

Confronted by what has become an ongoing, embarrassing crisis, police and prosecutors are being forced to revamp their systems.

In the two months since Kathleen M. O'Toole was appointed Boston police commissioner, she ousted three homicide detectives and replaced the unit's leadership with Deputy Superintendent Daniel Coleman.

She is also seeking to have her fingerprint and ballistics units certified and is revamping protocol for interrogations.

``I can't rewrite history; I can tell you things are changing around here,'' she said.

Powell's release led O'Toole and Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley to establish a task force made up of police officers, prosecutors, a professor and defense attorneys

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